Perhaps a lesser-known fact about 18th-century England is that it signified the arrival of the pampered pooch. Prior to that, man’s best friend had mostly (with the exception of a few privileged lapdogs) been used for hunting or protection, but an increase in household incomes (and a burgeoning middle class), coupled with a growing appreciation of the animal world, saw more people keen to keep pets. With this change in canine status came an interest in luxuriously fashioned dog collars, not only to emphasise a point of difference from strays, but as a stamp of affection and ownership that also indicated the taste and standing of the master.
Today, antique collars – with prices ranging from a few hundred pounds to several thousand – are a popular choice for dog owners with rarefied tastes. And, as awareness of collectability grows, specialists are emerging to complement a band of antiques dealers that sells the occasional find, such as Walpole Antiques, which is currently offering a leather-lined, silver example, hallmarked London 1881, for £650.
With the largest public display in the world, Leeds Castle in Kent is the place to window shop. “We have around 200 collars, dating from the 16th century to the present day,” says curator Tori Reeve. “The earliest ones, mostly European, are rather brutal spiked iron collars that would have been used to protect dogs against wolves or wild boar, while later examples are quite beautiful. We have a very ornate Italian Renaissance collar – it was a way for the owner to show off his wealth.” With an estimated value of £10,000, it’s the most expensive in the collection.
But far less extravagant dog collars have been known to fetch similar figures. Take the c1900, silver Tiffany & Co collar that was sold in February for $13,750 at Bonhams’ annual Dogs in Show & Field sale in New York. While the Tiffany marque commands a premium, it’s the beautifully inscribed hunting scenes and the words “Glorior esse qui sum” (“I glory in being who I am”) that set it apart. Collars with a glittering provenance also inevitably attract serious interest. At the 2008 Bonhams sale, five small pug collars that once belonged to Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson sold for $1,680, while in 2010, excitement surrounded a rather unremarkable-looking leather collar, which went on to sell for $11,400 (almost double its top estimate). The owner, as detailed on its brass plaque, was one Charles Dickens Esq.
“There’s a definite hierarchy of dog collars,” says Alan Fausel, who, as director of fine art at Bonhams, oversees these sales. “Seventeenth-century utilitarian collars with spikes will always sell well because of their rarity. Then come the brass ones – 18th and 19th century – often engraved with names or messages, adding curiosity. Leather examples, made in the 19th and 20th centuries, are often worn and hard to maintain, so they’re more affordable, although so-called “messenger collars”, used by the army to send updates from the front line back to headquarters in a canister, are very collectable.”
One such collar is in the possession of Glenn Martyn, an entrepreneur who lives in California’s San Francisco Bay area. Like all first world war collars, it is made of metal. What sets it apart is an inscription, telling of a German dog captured and “turned” by the British. Thanks to an obscure listing on eBay, Martyn paid just $400 for it a few years ago, but has seen similar collars sell for up to $2,000. It joins the rest of his collection, numbering several hundred.
But eBay is, as ever, a curate’s egg. Angela Eveslage of AntiquePooch.com has seen many fraudulent sales of antique collars. “Beware of thin silver ones with bells on them, usually from France. Some sellers say they’re 19th century, but they’re usually 20th. There is also a good swath of reproduction 18th-century brass collars.” Eveslage too suggests looking out for interesting provenance – she recently sold a heavy brass collar, which once belonged to the dog of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, for $800. “Catchy engravings also do well. I’ve just sold an 18th-century brass collar for $2,300, inscribed with ‘If I should miss or lose my way, kind friend, direct me right I pray’.” Still available on her website is a rare 18th-century copper, razor-edged collar with the name “Patch” engraved on it, priced at $1,299.
Luxury-dog-accessories specialist Amanda Grygelis happened upon antique collars by chance. “I was looking for one for Edie, my Staffordshire bull terrier, but everything was boring, plastic or covered in rhinestones. I thought about designing one and, looking for inspiration, I found two antique collars at auction.” Grygelis subsequently built a collection and now has around 80 Victorian collars for sale, a selection of which can be seen on her website Maisondog.co.uk, while the full spectrum will be available from her soon‑to-open shop in Dulwich. These include an elegant copper collar with domes (£850), complete with lock and key, and a leather one with intricate metalwork and semiprecious stones (£1,000). Her customers range from a retired chemist, who bought a 19th- century metal chain-collar (£200) with a leather insert for his wife (interestingly as an unusual curio to display rather than for a dog), to a high-flying financial director who, despite having two large Airedales, couldn’t resist a £350 Victorian brass pug collar with bells.
An astute collector-dealer, Grygelis looks for desirable addresses, such as Park Lane, engraved on collars, or jeu d’esprit inscriptions like the one on an 18th-century brass collar (valued at £1,000) on display at Leeds Castle that reads “Stop me not, but let me jog, for I am S Oliver’s dog”. An unusual 1850s silver-plated, studded collar, currently listed on 1stdibs.com for about £1,099, has also caught her discerning eye.
While Edie the Staffie regularly struts around in a £1,000 silver design from the late 1800s, many collars are displayed as objets d’art by their collectors. Indeed, polished and positioned, they can look fabulous. Grygelis arranges them in a glass cabinet, or stacks them on top of one another under a glass cloche. “People don’t make things like this any more,” she says. “They’re works of art.”